You know that dream when you think you’re flying, only to realize you’re actually falling, your body jolting awake the moment before you smack the ground and die on impact? That's what learning to surf is like, only with a lot of salt water swallowing, the fear of being eaten by sharks, and the knowledge that every hot dude from Venice to Malibu is laughing at you. So, actually, the falling-to-your-death dream is way more fun.
I have wanted to be a surfer since the day I saw “Point Break” for the first time. I emerged from a rundown movie theater in Oakland, California still 13, chubby, and unpopular, but something was different. Was it that I realized surfing was the source and it could change my life? Perhaps, but I also think that cinematic viewing was the precise moment full-blown puberty kicked in.
Hello, gentlemen sans cooties.
The wide swath of a surfer’s back, that adorable bubble butt cultivated from hours clenching on a board to stay balanced, the sun bleached frost in a salty curl; these things were and are intoxicating to me. It is still a life goal to get arrested for “Indecent exposure inside a moving vehicle,” just like Lori Petty. Also to make sweet sweet love to Keanu Reeves. But I digress.
The ballet of surfing called to me for years but I never dug up the courage to climb onto a chariot of foam until I met and married my very own Bodhi, Jason, a man who likes to get wet, hang ten, enter The Green Room, hit the lip, get shacked, and throw buckets.
In other words, he is a devout surfer and I wanted to achieve my fantasy while sharing this great love he often snuck off to enjoy without me (I call his surfboards “The Other Women”).
We set out for Malibu, the place Gidget was filmed, as the “Chariots of Fire” theme played triumphantly in my head. I was going to (blue) crush this!
There’s something you should probably know: I am one competitive lady. Like, mildly insanely competitive. For example, the people running on treadmills next to me at the gym never know it, but we are totally racing. Cards Against Humanity, miniature golf, who can finish their Chipotle burrito first; I welcome all challengers who are prepared to suffer defeat.
Which might be why exiting the water bleeding and emotionally broken a short while later was extra humiliating.
Surfing, I instantly discovered, is nothing like you see in movies. It’s all upper body strength as you paddle into waves that blast you rudely in the face, wobbling on a board that barely protects you from the creepy waterworld below promising all manner of peril at any moment, and a lot of apologies to better surfers who hate the fact that some kook just boned their ride.
While my husband treated me much as my father had the day he tried (and failed) to teach my how to drive stick shift (“I do this all the time, why can’t you?”), I realized I was in way over my head. Literally. We’re talking under water, in the washing machine of a wave too big to fight.
I’ve often dreamt I was flying but unable to move, swimming wildly in the air, my arms and legs beating feverishly and uselessly. Suddenly, I was doing it again, but it wasn’t a dream, and there was the possibility of drowning. Not tubular.
I bashed into a rock, cut my hand and legs, swallowed way too much of LA’s ocean, and eventually limped ashore, blood leaking down my legs, tears dripping down my face. This was not what I expected when I watched “Point Break” for the 57th time.
I don’t get embarrassed easily. I’ll feel second hand embarrassment, like when you’re watching a little kid in a rhinestone cowboy outfit go flat while singing “Wide Open Spaces” on “Star Search,” but I rarely find myself chastened by my own failure. Standing on the shore, I was mortified. And angry.
There was only one course of action: climb that surfing Everest and make it my bitch!
Three paid lessons, two ripper fights with Jason in the middle of the ocean, multiple bruised appendages, a weird rash from a loaner wetsuit, and a singluar epic ride in Hawaii followed by 20 minutes of wave-battering which left my bikini top inside out around my waist in a one woman campaign to Free the Nipple, I was ready to get back on the wave and ride it!
Jason and I set out for Santa Monica, a mellow break hospitable to beginners, as I tried to get Miley Cryus’ apt but annoying “The Climb” out of my head.
The rules for this surf trip were clear: Jason’s job was to be emotionally supportive and document my efforts. Mine was to paddle into my very own wave, stand up and ride it into the beach. And to not hurt myself again.
First things first, you have to gear up.
Wetsuits are basically full body Spanx, only thicker, harder to get in and out of, and even more claustrophobic. They also present a serious challenge to the bladder. We all know what it's like to pee in Spanx (read: completely and utterly impossible) so imagine wiggling out of turtleneck Spanx that encase you from dead-gripped neck to circulation-deprived ankle. Not gonna happen.
Instead, I’ve been informed, you are supposed to pee in your wetsuit.
“That’s cool,” you, like me, might be thinking, “It’s like peeing in a pool.”
Except the pool you’re peeing in covers your entire body. A wetsuit’s job is to keep a layer of warm fluid around you so cold water doesn’t infiltrate and chill you to the bone. Which means that after you pee in a wetsuit, you are essentially bobbing in a jacuzzi of your own urine until you un-sheath yourself. I don’t recommend it.
You are also supposed to put your wetsuit on whilst still dry and sand-free. That’s why you see so many foxy men doing towel-changes at their cars along PCH. They’re ensuring they don’t spend the next hours chafing from all the sand they dragged into their suit by changing on the beach. So you tug that bad boy up to your mid waist—not all the way on because you can overheat—and step one is complete.
Next you have to carry your board to the ocean, which is harder and heavier than you might expect.
While the Underarm Carry is the one most often seen in Roxy catalogues, it’s also the most taxing. I prefer the less chic but far easier method of propping the board on your head where it also serves as sun protection for your stroll.
At the water’s edge, you’re supposed to study the waves. I just try to look pensive and unintimidated, enjoying my final moments with any cool factor.
Then you attach your leash, the thing that keeps your board from flying away, to your ankle. I was “doing it wrong,” so Jason stepped in and did it for me.
Finally, finish tugging your wetsuit on, zip it up, and attempt to breathe normally even though it’s strangling you.
Excellent. It’s time to surf!
Once you’ve paddled out to where the waves break, you can sit on your board and take a moment to relax and appreciate where you are. The truth is it’s beautiful out there and easy to see why people fall in love with surfing.
But sitting isn’t surfing. A wave rolls in and it’s got my name on it. I lie on my belly and start to paddle.
As I feel the surge of the wave, the roll of the ocean beneath me, the board picks up for just a moment before one of four things will happen:
1: I lose my balance and fly ass over teakettle into the washing machine, salt water gushing up my nose where it will come unpredictably gushing back out hours after exiting the water. Which is weird and gross.
2: Charge forward, feeling triumph for one brief moment, only to see the front of the board dig into the water—“pearling,” as it’s called—the sea spraying me with a giant raspberry to the face, board cartwheeling overheard, and I’m dunked.
3: The wave rolls past, indifferent to my efforts.
4: Spring to my feet lithely, a cat on the prowl, and ride triumphantly toward the beach.
And, on this day, it was a “4” every time. Keanu and Swayze would have been so proud! Does Kelly Slater need to watch out for me anytime soon? Nah. But I am slowly but surely making a two-decade-old dream come true. And that is even better than indecent exposure inside a moving vehicle.